We have all dealt with fear at one point in our lives, some more than others. But how should we deal with fear and what can the Stoics teach us about it? Stoicism is often seen as a philosophy that tells you to suppress your emotions. It’s quite the opposite. The Stoics tell us to embrace our emotions, examine them, and from there learn to deal with them in a rational way. Not to act out of the emotion, but to learn from it. The same applies to dealing with fear, as we will see.
Don’t be afraid of this journey, tap into the virtue of Courage. As we will delve into what fear is, we will see that it is a discovery of the self. The signals it gives us and the lessons it teaches us. By the end of this post, you’ll be able to look at fear from a different perspective and then find ways to deal with it better. We’ll look at where we should place our focus as well as how we can be an example to others in moments of fear. To start the mindset shift regarding fear, let us look at what Marcus Aurelius had to say about it.
“My only fear is doing something contrary to human nature – the wrong thing – the wrong way – or at the wrong time.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 7.20
Where should our focus be?
Marcus Aurelius tells us where our focus should lie. Our goal is to be good human beings and live in accordance with nature. He fears acting the opposite of that, which keeps him sharp and aimed at doing the right thing. But this will also give us a clue about what fear is. Think about the moment you are in right now. Do you feel fear for the now? When we are in the moment, we take action. As Marcus said, the right action is what occupies our mind when it needs to. But once we start thinking about future events, then our imagination takes over.
“There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”Seneca, Moral letter to Lucilius, Book 2, Letter 13.4
As Seneca teaches Lucilius in his letter, it is often our mind that creates these fears. Not only creates them, but makes them worse. Take going to the dentist for example. We know we have to go and we’ve been many times before. It’s uncomfortable and it can be painful, but we survive most of our visits. And after that, our aches are either prevented or solved. We are then happy that we went. Unfortunately, our imagination doesn’t remind us of that last part. It shows us pictures of torture and suffering. But when we are in the chair, we are capable of dealing with it. Fears are based on something in the future, but what is it?
Fear turned into a tool
In our dentist example, we can see that it starts from experiences in the past. Unpleasant ones and we make them bigger. One helpful part of this is that the bigger we make them, the bigger the chances are that it won’t be anywhere near as bad. Then we have been in turmoil for nothing. This is a Stoic technique to help you look at the future and examine the worst-case scenarios. It helps us to see that we can handle these events and that they aren’t as bad as we made them out to be. The most important part of this exercise is that we use our reason to project ourselves onto these events, not let our emotions take over. They can initiate this technique, but not lead it.
Another part of what causes us fear is change and the consequences of a possible event happening to us. Dealing with loss and with possible difficult decisions might lead to discomfort. You can probably think of many other examples in your life that would cause you to fear. But the way we deal with it is to realize that life is change. Dealing with fear means dealing with change. We do that all the time and let’s train our brains to remember that. When we are in the moment we find our strength and work things out.
What is fear?
Before we go into how we can deal with fear, let’s look at what it is. It’s a signal. It’s life telling us something. Either that we are too attached to a certain part of it or that we are uncertain about who we are. And thus we feel we lose ourselves in it. But these signals teach us important lessons about who we are. Instead of letting fear paralyze us, or any other emotions for that matter, let’s see it as a teacher.
Take that pause and listen to what it has to say. Examine the fear and find out where it originates from. As you can see this is different from what people tend to think Stoics do. Many believe it’s a matter of brushing it away. No, the Stoics teach us to address it head-on. Find out what it means. These emotions are part of us and we should learn to live with them.
We need Stoic Courage
It can be scary though, to apply that introspection. We can find out things about ourselves we might not like that much. That’s why we mentioned the Stoic virtue of Courage earlier in this article. This is where we need to tap into this Virtue. Again, we find fear lurking in the background. Stopping us from understanding who we are. It also shows that if we want to make long-lasting progress and become a better person, we need to do the hard work. That’s what Stoicism is all about. No quick fix. Nothing that is meaningful comes easy, part of the meaning is locked in the effort required. Now that we have the courage to do so, let’s see what we can do to deal with fear in a healthy way.
The first step we should apply to the whole of our lives. We must know ourselves and understand who we are on a profound level. We’ve seen how emotions can help us with this and in another article, How our Mirror Fails to Reflect, we have seen that everything around us teaches us something about ourselves. Curiosity should take over and lead us in this discovery. Curiosity is one way to combat fear. The energy produced by this power will use the fear of the unknown and change to jump over that hurdle. It welcomes the signs of fear, as this is its moment to thrive. To learn and understand what is going on. Awaken the curiosity in yourself and love the quest for knowledge.
Fear means dealing with problems
Dealing with fear means dealing with problems. Trying to lead those events and their consequences in the best possible direction. However, that fear can take command of our reasoning power and cause us to panic and not do anything. If we focus on the solutions and work toward them, then we can take the power back. To solve a problem, we must first understand it. Think about a new task or issue you might have had to deal with at work. How did you go about it? Did you let it overwhelm you or did you break it down and tackled it? Creating smaller chunks to find ways to deal with it. By aiming our mind at the solution we are looking beyond the problem. The realization that the possible outcomes are not as bad, can help us reduce this fear.
Going back to the idea of loss, another cause of fear. The Stoics tell us that the only thing we possess is our mind and how we view the world. What our opinions are and the actions we take. What is under our control and what isn’t. Our possessions aren’t under our control. If we learn to see them for what they are, then the possibility of losing them won’t cause us that much fear. In fact, it can take it away almost completely. If we imagine the worst that can happen, then it can become clear to us that this isn’t so bad. And if we remind ourselves that we can deal with a lot, we can start to wonder why we worry at all. Free yourself from the fear of losing what you have, but learn to appreciate it in the moment.
Coming back to the present
This brings us to being more present. Fear and anxiety stem from a possibility in the future. It is a great sign and can make us more alert to take the right action. Once we start taking action, we forget to be fearful, we are caught in the moment. Connecting our thoughts to the now can help us eliminate those that were looking at a future . A future that might not even become reality. Change is happening right now, but because it is right in front of us, we don’t perceive it as such. Not until we look back and identify the moment when things changed. Think back to a moment that you define as a turning point in your life. Did you see it the same way in the moment itself? Most likely not, you were acting according to what the situation required of you.
This will also help us become better examples to those around us. While we are acting in the now, looking at the reality of the situation, we can become a leader for those who are stuck in fear. They might not understand our calm and can judge it to be indifference. But if we can remain confident and keep going forward, we can steer them through the obstacle. We can then help them reflect on what happened and show them some of our techniques. Such as the ones mentioned here. Our role as an example will help us go to the next level. To embrace the fear and understand what part we have to play. If people depend on us, we will need to take on more responsibility. But because we are now trained for it, we can take that extra step.
Learn to otherize
To get there, let’s look at one more technique the Stoics show us. The term we use for it is otherizing. This means we look at our own situations, with all the information we have, and then picture advising someone else in our place. This forces us to remove ourselves from the situation and change our perspective of it. We tend to give the best advice to others because we’re not emotionally invested. But we know our emotions and can take them with us in our advice. Next time you find yourself in the grips of fear, ask yourself what kind of advice you would give someone else.
Personal vs Collective fear
One final aspect of life that we have to take into consideration is the split between personal fear and collective fear. What we’ve been discussing are the fears that we experience as an individual. But also as a society, some fears occupy our minds. And while some of them are valid concerns, acting out fear wouldn’t help us solve them. Think about the climate, the economy, or any other societal issue. And if we examine these fears, we can see that they have always been around. Whenever I see a news segment from ten years ago, these same topics are shown.
As an individual within a society, we should protect ourselves from the contagious nature of this fear. Like anger, fear can spread fast and take a hold of many. That’s when we need to set the example we spoke of earlier. Look at the problem rationally and think about what we can do. Rather than complain and think it’s the end of the world. Give the fearful a support of peace to lean on, to look at, and to show the beauty life has to offer. To focus on solutions instead of doom.
We have all dealth with fear
Fear is an emotion we all have to deal with, but it is up to us to decide how we do so. What grip do we allow fear to have over us? We shouldn’t push it down or suppress it. No, we need to face it head-on, examine it, and learn from it to grow as a person. Remember, our task is simple, to be good people. To live a virtuous life in accordance with Nature. But fear will try to keep us from this goal.
That’s where we have to take a stand. If we understand our fears, we can look at the solutions and find out that the consequences aren’t as bad as we thought. Moreover, we should remind ourselves that when we are faced with the moment, we will deal with it as we have done with many moments before. Fear starts in the mind and we control that part. Show courage and take agency over your fear.
I will leave you with a quote from one of my favorite books, Dune by Frank Herbert. This is the Litany against fear, a mantra the Bene Gessirit used to repeat to themselves to control a scary or dangerous situation.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”Frank Herbert, Dune
6 thoughts on “How to Deal with Fear Like a Stoic”
Lovely article, and I adore the fact that you ended with the quote from Dune. That is one of my favorite quotes about fear ever.
I’m a big Dune fan as well. I have two books left to read and they are waiting for me when I get back home. Thank you for your comment.
I really love this. I feel like so many people think fear is a bad thing when that’s not always the case! Often it drives us and can benefit us in far more ways than most people realise.
Thank you Louise, for your comment. Fear isn’t always a bad thing, if we learn to channel it in the right way. Love how you added that it can drive us. Thank you
Another excellent piece that offers useful tips on how to overcome fear when it strikes. I love the quote from Seneca, and have used that myself often, and then Dune. I have been wanting to read Dune for years but always put it aside, and then lockdown gave me some time to delve into it. I loved it, and the Bene Gesserit are very Stoic in their attitudes.
Thank you, Zac, for your kind words. The Bene Gesserit are very Stoic in their attitudes and I have waited so long to add a Dune quote in one of my texts and where better to do it than here and this one. I’m glad you liked my post. Thank you for reading and commenting on it.